As we wrestle with such earth-wrenching decisions as when and how to disenfranchise Saddam Hussein (Rumsfeld translation: kill 'm), it's important that the world clearly understand our nation's position on condom use.
Make no mistake, the United States supports the Pope, the Church, the Temple, the Mosque, the family, Rome, Mecca, Medina, Israel and the West Bank, as well as abstinence, marriage and monogamy, in that order. However, if you're idiotic enough to have sex outside of wedlock, risking unwanted pregnancy, disease and probably doom, by all means, use a dadgum condom.
Is that clear? So, more or less, said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during a recent "global forum" on MTV, the music network. Now he's taking it on the chin from the abstinence-only crowd, who think Powell misrepresented the Bush administration's policy on premarital sex.
It happened like this: Powell was chatting it up with the pubescent crowd on those issues nearest and dearest to young people around the world: sex, al Qaida, sex, Osama bin Laden, sex and, of course, sex. When the discussion turned to AIDS, a 19-year-old woman in Milan, Italy, asked Powell what he thought about the Catholic Church's policy against condoms. Ever the diplomat, Powell first praised the Holy Father and the Catholic Church, and then praised condoms for the sexually active.
"I not only support their (condoms') use," said the chief diplomat for the free world, "I encourage their use among people who are sexually active."
Those who support an abstinence-only message were incensed. Focus on the Family (FOF), for example, has issued a Call To Action on its Web site, urging visitors to call the White House (FYI: the line's busy) and insist that President Bush refute Powell's statement. To groups such as FOF, the only answer to teen pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is abstinence.
Technically, of course, they're right. Abstaining from eating will also prevent fatness, but people like to eat, and people, including half of all high school students in the United States, like to have sex, according to latest reports. Given which, I can't find anything wrong with Powell's response, except that he offered one at all. Personally, I'd prefer that the secretary of state not talk about sex, but then, I also prefer a president who declines to discuss his underwear.
On the other hand, Powell - because of his natural diplomacy and easy rapport with all ages and races - may be just the right person to bridge the gap between those who want to hand out condoms with Kiddie Meals and those who seem to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that humans are perfectible.
In that case, Powell didn't go far enough. Once he decided to discuss condoms, here's what he should have said:
"The best defense against disease and pregnancy is abstinence.
I'd like to talk about that for a minute. I'm not naïve, and I understand the power of sex. I also know that some of you, regardless of what I believe about the importance of postponing sex for marriage, are going to ignore me. Therefore, if you're already sexually active, I urge you to use condoms as minimal protection against disease and unwanted pregnancy.
"But, having said that, I would be irresponsible not to tell you that condoms aren't foolproof. You have to use the right type of condom in just the right way, and I urge you to find out what those types and ways are. But even when used correctly and consistently, our best research shows that condoms fail 15 percent of the time in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
"To me, that's an unacceptable risk. Think about it. By the fact of your using a condom, you're acknowledging that you may contract a disease that at worst may kill you and at least may make your life miserable. There's an 85 percent chance you'll be OK, but for me, that's not enough.
"I might also add that condoms can't protect against human heartbreak and the emotional distress that sometimes follows what we call 'casual sex.' In my experience, there's nothing casual about sex. It's complicated; it's amazing; it's too important to waste on an encounter that means nothing and risks everything. That's part of what we hope to impart through abstinence education.
"I realize this may not be the answer you were seeking. But I figure when a young person asks a gray-haired government official a question, you're trusting that I may know something you don't. What I do know is that sex with the person to whom you've committed your life is why we had to invent the word 'joy.' As a marriage bonus, you don't have to worry about condoms. Any other questions?"